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The Tin House Rules: Purchase Required

A crafty new submissions policy from Tin House Books is reminding writers to be readers—and consumers.

Tin House

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A crafty new submissions policy from Tin House Books is reminding writers to be readers—and consumers.

The book press and quarterly literary magazine’s recent call for manuscripts welcomes unsolicited submissions but comes with a caveat: Each submission must include a receipt for a book purchased at a bookstore. As for those who can’t afford to buy books or get to a bookstore, Tin House asks for a haiku or under-100-word sentence explaining why. Writers who prefer their words in e-ink can send similar explanations for their turn away from bookstores and analog reading.

Tin House, which published 10 books last year and has 10,000 subscribers to its magazine, thought up its temporary policy after the 2010 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Denver. “The students in the audience seemed very concerned about what they could do to further their careers,” says Lee Montgomery, editorial director of Tin House Books. In 2009, U.S. book sales fell by 1.8 percent, according to the Association and American Publishers, and just five percent of sales come from independent bookstores.

Literary agent Julie Barer offered a solution for anxious writers, Montgomery says, telling writers the best thing they can do to support themselves is to go to bookstores and buy books.

Now, Tin House is trying to enforce that advice–at least for those interested in having their work published with the press. “We thought we’d try to do something that would support bookstores and the actual book,” Montgomery says. “I think we’re feeling a little nostalgic for the old order.”

That nostalgia-turned-submissions-policy has writers and publishers wielding words in both support and anger toward Tin House. “We’ve taken a lot of criticism,” says Montgomery, but she notes that many in the literary world have commended the policy.

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In an imitative gibe, Dzanc Books has come up with a temporary policy of its own: Send them a receipt for a book of “literary fiction” bought at an independent store, and they’ll donate a book to the library or school of your choice.

Either way, the synergy remains. Writers depend on readers and readers depend on writers. “The whole engagement is intertwined,” says award-winning poet C.D. Wright.

“Writing is the least expensive art form on the scene, but its forums have to be reinforced,” she says. “Writers can and should kick in.”

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